Winter marks the start of Brits starting to eat unhealthily. The health kick they started in the summer is losing momentum and as the evenings draw darker, colder and trash TV season begins, people are more tempted to reach for unhealthy food choices such as takeaway.
The colder weather naturally leads us to seek out calorie-dense foods in an effort to replace lost energy used for warmth. Added to this, shorter days impact the circadian rhythm and affect sleep quality, leaving us feeling tired and lethargic. The motivation to exercise can easily slide as well – not just because the weather is unpleasant, but we’re also layered in body-concealing clothes.
Added to this are the more social and contextual aspects of winter such as even busier pre-Christmas work schedules, trying to fit in countless Christmas parties and restaurant menus that, once full of heathy vibrant salads, are now packed with stodgy comfort food.
This can all result in a perfect storm of cravings. We all have them, but what does your craving say about you? Figuring this out will give you the answers to banishing pre-Christmas cravings and help maintain health and wellbeing throughout the winter months, so we asked the Mindful Chef psychologist Dr Meg Arroll for some insight.
Craving 1: Last minute takeaways
The run-up to Christmas period is hectic to say the least. On top of a busy work schedule, trying to see friends, arranging the perfect holiday season with families and finding that ultimate present can be overwhelming. Being so incredibly busy can mean that we reach for last-minute food fixes – for many of us, this is a takeaway late in the evening.
Eating late seriously disrupts our body’s natural sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm) and disturbs our sleep, making us even hungrier the next day. The key to managing this time of year is to let go of ‘perfect’ and focus on what’s beneficial for you – set realistic expectations with family and friends to take the pressure off. Try not to let your healthy routine slip!
“When we eat natural, unprocessed foods hormones in the body tell our brain when we are full and therefore that we should stop eating. Takeaways and processed foods often have so many additives, preservatives and other chemicals that can actually suppress these hormones that signal we are full. It is one of the reasons you often get huge portions of food with takeaways which then leads to overeating.
“We’re not saying if you eat an avocado you’ll sleep like a baby. However, there are some foods that contain certain minerals and vitamins that help promote good sleep. Foods containing B vitamins, calcium and magnesium are good to include in your evening meals. Think ingredients like broccoli, lentils, leafy green vegetables and salmon.”
Craving 2: Chocolate – of any description
One reason that chocolate cravings are so strong is that this indulgent treat releases the feel-good neurochemicals serotonin and dopamine. These processes act as an immediate mood-boost and source of stress relief, something that may be particularly needed during the run-up to Christmas and during SAD (Seasonal Effective Disorder) season.
Instead of reaching for the sweet stuff, try getting a simple massage. Research has shown that massage can increase serotonin levels by 28% and reduce the stress hormone cortisol by 31% – which has a much longer effect compared to the short 3-minute boost from chocolate.
“Magnesium plays a vital role in energy production and muscle relaxation and can help reduce our levels of cortisol (the hormone released in response to stress). Constant states of chronic stress can deplete magnesium levels within the body and less magnesium in the body only amplifies the effects of stress. Luckily for us magnesium is found in lots of foods such as whole grains, avocados, leafy green vegetables and bananas.”
Craving 3: Comfort food
Our focus tends to be on others – not only in the festive period but quite a lot of the time. This means we often forget to prioritise our own needs, skipping meals during the day, relying on caffeinated drinks and grabbing unhealthy food on the go. This type of self-neglect can lead to strong cravings for comfort food such as sumptuous pasta and pies. Our minds are basically saying ‘remember me, I’m important too so give me something soothing’. Therefore, make sure you set aside some time each day for self-care. This can be cooking healthy food to nourish you, a quick burst of exercise or a few minutes of mindfulness practice, all of which will help curb cravings.
“Simple carbohydrates – those found in foods like sweets, biscuits, cakes – offer a quick boost for both the body and the mind. However, that satisfied feeling never lasts for long as simple carbohydrates are less nutrient dense. Complex carbohydrates – foods like whole grains and vegetables – are full of fibre and digest slower helping you feel fuller for longer. Next time you’re craving the sweet treats try opting for a more complete meals of protein, carbohydrates and fats which will satiate your hunger for longer and make sure you don’t opt for food that is of very little nutritional benefit to you and your body.”